Britain wants to agree a defence and security treaty with the EU before its leaves the bloc in March 2019, Theresa May told the Munich Security Conference on Saturday (17 February).
Addressing the high-level event, which was attended by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, the UK prime minister called for a “deep and special partnership” on defence, stating that “the key aspects of our future partnership in this area will already be effective from 2019.”
“The UK is just as committed to Europe’s security in the future as we have been in the past”.
“This cannot be a time when any of us allow competition between partners, rigid institutional restrictions or deep-seated ideology to inhibit our cooperation and jeopardise the security of our citizens,” May added.
But she also ruled out a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
“We are leaving the EU and there is no question of a second referendum or going back and I think that’s important,” she said.
For his part, Juncker said that continued defence and security co-operation was in the interest of both sides but could not be “mixed up” with the wider Brexit negotiations.
“This security alliance, this security bridge between the UK and the EU will be maintained, we still need it,” he said.
So far, the UK is yet to set out exactly what it would like to be included in a defence treaty, but it would be likely to cover military, intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation. That would include provisions on common EU military missions, the continued contribution of UK troops to them, and defence capability.
The UK also wants to retain close links with Europol, which coordinates police intelligence across the EU, and remain part of the European Arrest Warrant.
The extent of this co-operation could, however, pose problems for ‘hard Brexiteers’ in May’s Conservative party. EAW membership would mean oversight by the European Court of Justice, a self-imposed red-line by the UK government.
Meanwhile, the government’s negotiating paper on defence and security talks of the need to include a proposal to stay in the European Defence Fund and defence industrial programme, the core pillars of the agreements. This is likely to mean conceding defence decision-making to the EU as the structures are governed by EU institutions.
That could also cause friction with Brexiteers.
The UK’s defence industry is also anxious to remain part of the European ecosystem. On Friday, Robert Hannigan, the former head of the UK intelligence service, warned that UK defence firms would fall into a “steady decline” if they lost the ability to collaborate on research and innovation with the EU defence sector.
“It ought to be easier (to agree) than a trade deal,” a defence analyst told EURACTIV. “The interest is to get this done at the start of 2019,” she added.
The UK is taking a “schizophrenic approach”, a Westminster defence source told EURACTIV, pointing out that its ministers publicly opposed plans for an EU ‘defence union’ in late 2016, with ministers saying that they gave their consent to avoid impeding the EU-27 while the British were preparing to leave the bloc.
Since then, however, UK ministers have been involved in the Defence Union discussions. EU ministers have moved closer to agreements on a range of issues including military finance, command, intelligence and defence industrial planning.
In December, 25 member states – except Denmark, Malta and Britain – agreed to join a new ‘permanent structured cooperation’ on defence, or PESCO.